Session E.7: Re/Turning to Less Commonplaces: Questioning Assumptions and Ethical Design for Multimodality


Presenters: Rachael Sullivan (St. Joseph’s University), Kristin Princ (Cal Poly Pomona), Matt Breece (UT Austin), and Megan McIntyre *One of the scheduled presenters was unable to attend.

Rachael Sullivan, “Flatten the (Learning) Curve: Strategies for Addressing Technical Difficulty in Multimodal Assignments”

Rachael Sullivan discusses the importance of responding compassionately to students’ technical problems in the multimodal classroom. Especially recently, she explains, students are experiencing extreme digital fatigue which may cause them to seek help and ask more technical questions than they might normally. By shaming our students and acting as if their questions are below us, though, we risk making assumptions about our students’ backgrounds as well as what they should know or find easy in our multimodal assignments. Moreover, she argues, we risk robbing our students of opportunities to experiment and interact with digital technologies and learn associated skills such as problem-solving and troubleshooting. She then offers three ways we might re-think technical difficulty and increase compassion in the multimodal classroom.

First, she suggests looking for generative, creative openings in seemingly insignificant moments of breakdown and struggle. She gives an example of how she integrated troubleshooting into the work process of one of her own students’ projects and turned her technical difficulty into a moment of discovery instead of a roadblock. Second, instructors should consider prioritizing collaboration and deprivileging mastery. To encourage playfulness with new digital literacies, teachers might assign lightly weighted grades and/or assign skills-based tasks in small groups. Finally, Sullivan encourages instructors to approach multimodal assignments as opportunities to confront dynamics of power and question which bodies are the beneficiaries of power. Just as we should avoid making assumptions about our students’ backgrounds, we should teach our students to think about what assumptions certain texts make and what they omit or gloss over.

She concludes by emphasizing the imperative we have to care for students and be patient with their technical problems. Without that continued investment, students may withdraw from our courses or other opportunities for learning and engaging with digital technologies altogether.

Kristin Princ, “Questioning Pedagogical-Infrastructural Dreams in Light of Student Realities”

In her talk, Princ points out the shortcomings of “best pedagogical practices,” especially in relation to students’ everyday realities. Drawing from her roles as a writing instructor and a writing program administrator, she shares two instances in which she had to violate best practices and adapt her original approach to accommodate students.

Princ first recaps the semester she taught a multimodal literacies class and was not assigned to a computer lab classroom as she had requested. Some class periods required the use of a laptop, but the majority of her students—who commuted to campus—did not have personal laptops or ready access to a computer. One assignment asked students to use Photoshop or GIMP to create an image macro to familiarize themselves with image editing applications, but her students defaulted to drag-and-drop apps or online meme generators that created those macros for them. Best practices, like the “lo-fi” approach offered by Stolley, were not the most feasible option in this scenario. In order to generate conversations about learning the tools and working with digital files in new ways, Princ had to start with apps students were already using to alter images and then explore the kinds of changes they were making. Though she claims it’s not her preferred method, it allows her to meet her intended objectives as well as her students’ needs.

Next, she explains a faculty workshop she attended for converting face-to-face classes into fully online courses. Again, the advice was driven by decontextualized “best practices” that did not acknowledge students’ spotty internet access or how it would not be conducive to streaming interactive videos, especially in a synchronous setting. Looking to relevant work on online writing instruction, she encouraged faculty to find lower-fi alternatives like Discord to build presence and accessibility into their online classrooms.

Matt Breece, “Access and Multimodal Assignment Design”

Matt Breece begins by outlining Kerschbaum’s concept of multimodal inhospitality and the challenges of access users face across digital divides. Extending her critique beyond access in terms of disability, he urges instructors to design multimodal assignments that emphasize planning and user-centeredness more broadly. Specifically, he suggests applying Kerschbaum’s three accessibility principles of redundancy, flexibility, and variety to software considerations, technical workshops, modal considerations, and assignment design.

For instance, when choosing which software to use for multimodal projects, instructors might consider software that is available in the classroom/ media lab or software that is downloadable for students. We may also consider software that works across devices and offer multiple options for a single medium (like using Audacity, GarageBand, and Audition for sound recording and editing). When creating technical workshops, instructors may create a combination of in-person instruction, video tutorials, resource pages, and troubleshooting opportunities. We may also empower students by adapting our workshops and inviting students to contribute materials that center their needs and expertise.

For modal design, Breece suggests increasing modal flexibility and variety through creating a visual assignment that could be delivered as a webtext, slide deck, or visual PDF, or creating assignments that could be delivered as a video-, audio-, or web text. Finally, in designing assignments, instructors might ask students to remix and recompose previous assignments into different mediums. They may also create assignments that are easily adaptable for various mediums, and empower students by adapting and customizing assignments to fit their own needs and goals.

He notes that there is no one-size-fits-all design that will work across all institutions, courses, and student populations, and encourages instructors to take each of these things into consideration when planning, scaffolding, and workshopping through these various access points.

Megan McIntyre, “At the Intersection of Antiracist and Multimodal Composition”

Megan McIntyre’s talk notes the connections between multimodal composition and antiracist, culturally responsive, and translingual pedagogies. While she acknowledges that multimodality is not inherently antiracist, she offers three ways multimodality can serve antiracist pedagogical approaches. First, multimodal projects don’t have to be linear or rigid. Second, multimodal pedagogies can emphasize the home languages, values, and interests of students and their communities. Finally to quote Cedillo, multimodal approaches to language and literacy “[highlight]race and disability as critical means of embodied [intervention and]invention that gainfully unsettle habituated [practices and]expectations” around so-called academic writing.

McIntyre then discusses her multimodal approach to training graduate teaching associates in a way that helps them create culturally responsive reading and writing assignments, classroom practices, and teaching philosophies. First, she assigns scholarship on multimodality along with multimodal texts so students can read multimodal texts while they are reading about them. She also shares examples of multimodal project assignments and student work so graduate students can see a variety of multimodal assignments and learn how to respond to them. Like the other panelists, McIntyre says this work requires care, attention, creativity, and flexibility. However, she assures listeners that the benefits and possibilities are enormous.   


All four presenters offer methods for teaching multimodality and the affordances of implementing those approaches. At the same time, they highlight the care, investment, patience, thought, planning, creativity, and flexibility involved in bringing multimodal work into the classroom. More than anything else, the panelists seem to prioritize students’ immediate and long-term needs in designing, implementing, and grading multimodal assignments. In following their call, our multimodal classrooms can become more compassionate, accessible, and anti-racist spaces.

About Author

Brittany Capps

Brittany Capps is a PhD candidate in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of South Carolina. She is interested in composition pedagogy and meeting students' immediate, academic, and post-graduate needs in the First-Year Writing classroom.

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